Thursday, March 10, 2011

Oppositional character under capitalism: underground men and beasts 1

“Let the following stand as a remarkable proof of the frivolous nature of the magic art. Of all animals it is the mole that the magicians admire most! a creature that has been stamped with condemnation by Nature in so many ways, doomed as it is to perpetual blindness and adding to this darkness a life of gloom in the depths of the earth and a state more nearly resembling that of the dead and buried. There is no animal in the entrails of which they put such implicit faith, no animal they think better suited for the rites of religion …” Pliny, Natural History

There are two undergrounds in the Modern era, distinguished mainly by who or what inhabits them. One is the underground of the mole or beast; one is the underground of the revolutionary or reactionary. They touch each other, but they stem from different beginnings – one from magic and nature, the other from waste and the order of the city.

The first takes its emblem from this moment in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, after Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father, when he swears his friends to secrecy and – as the stage directions say – “the ghost cries under the stage” three times:


Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.


[Beneath] Swear.


Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.


[Beneath] Swear.


Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!

The old mole is, of course, a spirit – the spirit of the dead king, unrightfully deprived of his life and throne. The spirit is, as well, the announcer of dreadful news, not only of murder but of incest. It is the spirit of sovereignty in the underworld, and what it urges is secrecy and action. The phrase is revived in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy to apply to the spirit of reason:

“For it has taken a long time for philosophy in our time to have been brought forth; so tardily and slowly it [the spirit] works to bring itself to this goal. What we can see in a brief time in memory went by in reality in this long fashion. Because in this the concept of the spirit strives, aptly in itself, with its whole concrete development, riches, external subsistence, to develop itself, advance in itself, and develop out of itself. It always strides forward, because only the spirit is progress. Often it seems to forget itself, to be lost; but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working forward – as Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “bravely done, honest mole” – until it, strengthened inwardly, now breaks the surface of the earth, that separated it from the son, its concept, so that the earth crumbles. In such times it puts on seven mile boots where the earth, a soulless, rotten building, has collapsed, and it shows itself in the shape of renewed youth. This work of the spirit, to know itself, to find itself, this activity is the spirit, the life of the spirit itself, Its result is the concept, that by which it is grasped: the history of philosophy the clear insight, that the spirit willed this in its history.”

This sense of the old mole as not only the revengeful sovereign but the spirit of reason – and of history, in as much as history is moved, that is, has its historicity, not in the natural laws that govern time and place, but by the dialectical ones that govern the sense of time and place – puts one underground, of the mole, in contact with another underground, that of the revolutionary.

This is the second underground, that of the sewer and the city. It has a less clear history, since it is stamped with its poetic form after it has existed as a kind of historic legend. Let me propose Marat as the first inhabitant of this underground, which is made not by a creature under the earth, but by a builder under the city.

The underground, here, is more plainly a sewer. And the sewer is not just the mechanism by which the city’s wastes are voided, but also a refuge from power in the city. It mirrors dethroned sovereignty in being the place of abjection. Yet it is also the place from whence comes a threat to destroy the order of the city.

In Donald Reid’s Paris Sewers in Sewerman, there is a useful account of the association between the sewer and Marat. It was known that the sewer served as a hiding place for criminals in the 18th century, and it was also a fact that Marat had, at various points in his life, had to hide from the cops, or – in the days before the Revolution – from angry patrons. Marat’s skin, famously, was covered with running sores, the symptoms of prurigo. He emitted a disturbing body odor. All of which could be taken as signs of some disease contracted in the depths, among the wastes.

And yet, who are the wastes? In one of his malicious anecdotes, Chamfort tells us that Madame, the daughter of King Louis XV, was playing with one of her maids when she looked at the maid’s hand, then at her own, and said, “What? … you have five fingers too, like me? And she counted again just to make sure.” The creatures below, the wastes of the kingdom, the poor and the laborers, these seemed to rank among the wastes. Marat may not have seen this as clearly as a nineteenth century pamphleteer, but he attacked the order of the rulers with an astonishing vehemence, expressing the feeling of being one of those ‘thrown away”.

Hugo plays upon these images in the chapters in the fifth book of Les Miserables dedicated to Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau, Napoleon’s inspector of the sewers. Hugo’s imagination was seized by the fact that Bruneseau made an expedition beneath Paris to explore the sewers, just as though he were exploring a different continent. For the sewer tunnels had been erected without any systematic order – like the Spirit in Hegel, they advanced, but they were also inwardly contradictory. Bruneseau proposed to map them so that they could be organized, as so the frequent flooding of the streets with filth from the sewers could be averted. This expedition, or really, series of expeditions conducted from 1805 to around 1812, resulted in a published report. Hugo’s account is about details left out of the report, which may be the author casting his fiction in the glamour of journalistic truth, or may be the result of private information he had actually gathered about these expeditions. In any case, at one point the team comes upon a rotting grill between two branches of the sewer:

“The most surprising encounter was at the entry to the Grand Egout. This entry had been closed, in the past, by a grill of which there remained only the joints. On one of the joints was found a sort of shapeless, soiled rag, which, without doubt, arrested there in the passage, had floated in the shadows until it finally came to the point of being almost unthreaded. Brunesceau approached his lantern and examined this bit of cloth. It was of very fine batiste, and distinguished in one of its less eaten away corners buy a heraldic crown interwoven into it above the letters : LAVBESP. The crown was that of a marquis and the seven letters signified Laubespine. They recognized that they were viewing a piece of the winding sheet of Marat. Marat, in his youth, had had his loves. It was when he was part of the house of the comte d'Artois in his quality as doctor of the stables. Of these loves, historically affirmed, with a great lady, there remained to him this bedsheet. A wreck or a souvenir. At his death, as it was the only fine linen that he possessed, he’d been wrapped in it.”

This filthy, stained bit of bedsheet was the veritable flag of the underground man.

A more ordinary story is told by Michelet. ‘The mise en scene,” he writes, “ counts for much in the revolutionary life.” Marat, he claims, liked to associate himself with his hiding place, in the basement – the ‘cave’ – of the Cordeliers.

The chapter before, Hugo had written, about the sewers, sous la confusion des langues il y avait la confusion des caves. Dédale doublait Babel. (under the confusion of tongues there was a confusion of caves: the labyrinth doubles Babel). This notion that, under the great metropoles there was a sort of Venice of shit – an anti-city – comprehends an old mythic idea of the labyrinth. In Tim Ingold’s History of Lines, there is a consideration of those intricate designs, those multiply crossing lines, whose purpose, according to anthropologist Alfred Gell, is apotropaic. “By this he means the practice of inscribing complex and
visually puzzling designs upon surfaces in order to protect those sheltered
behind them from attack by evil spirits or demons.” Gell’s idea was that the labyrinth was the same kind of apotropaic design. Ingold disagrees – this is an instance where the effect of a trace – which is a line on a surface – is confused with a thread – that is, a line with its own surfaces.

“But as an explanation of the labyrinth, Gell’s suggestion is wide of the
mark. This is because it assumes from the outset a kind of ‘demon’s eye
view’ – an aerial perspective from which the overall layout of the maze
may be surveyed and represented in a pattern-like form. Such a perspective,
however, is not available to the terrestrial traveller who is already embarked
upon a journey across the earth’s surface – a journey that is tantamount to
life itself. The entrance to the maze marks the point not at which he touches
down upon the surface, but at which he goes underground. Now as an interface
between earth and air, the ground is a kind of surface that is visible from
above, but not from below. It does not have another side. Thus at the very
moment of going underground, of entering the labyrinth, the surface itself
disappears from sight. It appears to dissolve. This moment marks the transition
from life to death. Thenceforth – and quite unlike Gell’s demon which,
caught in the contemplation of an apotropaic pattern, is glued to a surface –
the ghostly traveller finds himself in a world without any surface at all. Every
path is now a thread rather than a trace. And the maze of passages, never
visible in its totality, can only be reconstructed by those few – such as the hero Theseus, or the Chukchi shaman who drew the sketch for Bogoras –
who have visited the world of the dead and made it back again.

In Custine’s account of his tour of Russia in 1839, he remarks that Nijni Novgorad, a ‘bazaar town”, “reposes on a subterranean city, a superb, vaulted cloaque, an immense labyrinth where one loses oneself, if one penetrates without an experienced guide. Each street of the fair section of the city is doubled by a superior gallery which follows it under the earth over its complete length and serves as the outlet for filth. These sewers constructed of building blocks are cleaned many times a day byy a multitude of pumps which are used to draw water from the nearby river. One penetrates into these galleries by large stairways made of beautiful rock.”

Magnificent filth – the waste that waits for its moment. This is the pole that connects the revolutionary to the reactionary in the formation of the oppositional character under capitalism. It connects the man in the sewer, or, more prosaically, the man in the basement of the Cordelier club, to the man under the floorboards, the man in a mousehold – Doestoevsky’s underground man.

Monday, March 07, 2011

the anthropological use of the novel

In his preface to Anthropology from the Pragmatic Point of View, Kant wrote:

“Finally, there are those things that are not, in truth, sources of Anthropology, but supplements [ Hülfsmittel] to it: world history, biographies, and yes, even plays and novels. Because although both of the last are not actually founded in experience and truth, but only in poetic imagining, and the exaggeration of characters and situations are allowed wherein persons are set as in dream images, and this seems to hold nothing out for the teaching of the knowledge of mankind, still these characters, as they are sketched out by a Richardson or a Moliere, must have their fundamental features taken from out of the observation of the real action and forbearance of men because they, although exaggerated to a degree in quality, must after all still agree with human nature.”

The key to the exaggeration of the artist is the degree of accuracy of his observation of the characters and situations of human kind. But what kind of accuracy is it that is pitched against exaggeration? It is not the mathematical precision of science; rather, what holds the correspondence together, here, is what is plausible. The “agreement” with human nature is not a correspondance with natural fact, but an correspondance to what we consider to be a plausible account of what humans do.

Evans, in Aristotle’s Concept of Dialectic, claims that Aristotle uses two words, endoxos and eikos, to speak of a certain kind of reasoning from probabilities. The two words are often confused in translation to mean ‘what is generally received” or what is plausible. Endoxos can mean famous or glorious, or it can be applied to views that have a certain weight, that come with a certain reputation; endoxon can mean a common belief, a commonplace or view. The weight of a view, its human probability, comes, then, not from some fact about the world, but from the regard we have for the source of the view, or in other words, the regard we have for the persons who, we suppose, have the view. The plausible is, thus, always a view that refers to some class or group. That view of a group, the opinion held by the public – and what counts, here, as the public – the consensus, the serious, is all encrypted in the exaggerations of ‘a Richardson or a Moliere”. The writers are, in a certain sense, allowed the dreamer’s freedom to distort. But, as with dreams that we consider to hold truths about the past or future, through the distortion we can read a certain message. The message, for the anthropologist, concerns what is magnified in dramatic incidences – that is, the elements of a character. And what gives the character its unity is the logic of the plausible, the inferences that find their objective side in, say, the deductions of Sherlock Holmes – who understands character in terms of the neglect of a sleeve, or the tilt of a hat. This logic, as Aristotle says in the Topics, defines the dialectical method:

“Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. (a) It is a 'demonstration', when the premises from which the reasoning starts are true and primary, or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premises which are primary and true: (b) reasoning, on the other hand, is 'dialectical', if it reasons from opinions that are generally accepted. Things are 'true' and 'primary' which are believed on the strength not of anything else but of themselves: for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are 'generally accepted' which are accepted by every one or by the majority or by the philosophers-i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them. Again (c), reasoning is 'contentious' if it starts from opinions that seem to be generally accepted, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be generally accepted. For not every opinion that seems to be generally accepted actually is generally accepted. For in none of the opinions which we call generally accepted is the illusion entirely on the surface, as happens in the case of the principles of contentious arguments; for the nature of the fallacy in these is obvious immediately, and as a rule even to persons with little power of comprehension. So then, of the contentious reasonings mentioned, the former really deserves to be called 'reasoning' as well, but the other should be called 'contentious reasoning', but not 'reasoning', since it appears to reason, but does not really do so.”

What is “generally accepted” is what is endoxos. There is, of course, a difference between a literary character and an argument, even in the most didactic of texts, but literary characters, in Kant’s view – a view that is ‘generally accepted’ by a philosophic tradition going back to Aristotle – are made out of what we would expect, and a little bit more – that little bit being a matter of the art of the observer.

In an essay by Genette on vraisemblence (or plausibility) and motivation in literature, he quotes a letter from Bussy-Rabotin to Madame Sevigne concerning The Princess de Cleves in which he decries one of the actions of the heroine for partaking of what ought not to be done, even if such things are done. What happened in the novel “should only be said in a true story.”

Bussy-Rabotin’s sentiment is one we can easily recognize. It is alive in the way people speak of books, plays, movies, tv. But, oddly, it drives more of a wedge between what Aristotle called the demonstrative and the plausible. It is as if we have gone through the mirror of art and come out on the other side, for the truth of art is precisely the contrary of what “should only be said in a true story.” This is not, I must emphasize, an aesthetic that died in Madame Sevigne’s salon – you have merely to hear politically committed people speak of a film or a novel to realize that there is a whole political bienseance in which what might be said in a true story should not be said, or should be said otherwise, in a false one.

In The Princess de Cleves, in fact, Madame de la Fayette underlines the violation of the rules of bienseance, and even plausibility, by having her heroine write that her confession to her husband is ‘without example’ – or as Genette puts it, has the support of no generally accepted maxim.

Genette applies the system of the plausible to the question of motive, which is after all the test of the property and distinctness of character – that is to say, the element that diversifies character. The avaricious character is motivated by love of money to make a certain deal. The saint is motivated by love of humanity to help a certain person. But the modern, Genette points out, is characterized by a movement away from the maxim, the reputation, the consensus, the ‘what ought to be’, and towards the gratuitous, the implausible – towards what Manchette, the French mystery writer, called the behavioristic style, in which action does not refer, explicitly, to motive. Genette calls this the decline, or transformation, of the discursive voice in the novel. Balzac, for Genette, is the classic example of a writer whose authorial asides – representing the whole system of the plausible - intrude the discursive, or the explanation by way of motives, into the heart of the story. But the massiveness of Balzac’s explanations actually undermine the system of the plausible by revealing the arbitrariness of the “psychological explanation”. One is continually coming across very different, even contradictory, psychological explanations in Balzac for the same type of action. As Genette points out, Balzac’s generalizations can often be reversed, as for instance in his novel The Cure of Tours, when he writes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit! He could not, like many stupid people, support the boredom that was caused in him by the presence of stupid people. People without wit are like weeds that like to grow in good soil, and they like to be amused as much as they bore others.” As Genette says, such explanations almost irresistibly call for “Ducassian inversion” – that is, for the kind of inversion of the common maxim that pleased Lautreamont. In so elaborately motivating his characters, Balzac ‘protests too much’: he betrays the “arbitrariness of the recit.” For, of course, the Cure of Tours can do almost anything. There is no natural control upon him, no fact that impinges on his making. This can lead to the direction of apparently immotivated action or, as Genette observes, to the absolute expansion of discourse, or the ‘essayistic’ – from Balzac to Proust there is less distance than one thinks.

It is the plausible, then, that is engaged by the dialectical. In consequence, dialectic always bears the slight impress of the “who” that believes, makes a maxim, follows a norm – that is, the slight impress of the banal.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...